Islands of Ireland: To everything tern, tern, tern

Islands of Ireland: To everything tern, tern, tern

From a distance, the standout feature on this lacustrine island in Lady’s Island Lake, Co Wexford, is of a solitary Monterey pine tree which dominates the character of the island. There are no other trees there and no other vegetation of significance except a blanket of grass. Just this giant, solitary tree. How it got there is anyone’s guess.

The late Dick Warner suggested on this page a few years ago that the Monterey, like the arbutus, may have survived in a warm pocket in the last Ice Age when the ice swept down from the North Pole to blanket almost everything. The Monterey is known to be resistant to salt water, which may be the reason it was planted there as a means to resist erosion.

Lady’s Island Lake is actually a lagoon, as it is separated from the sea by a narrow sandbar which is unable to hold back the sea from penetrating when the tides are very high. Thus, combined with the inflow from rivers and streams, this lake is almost unique in the country for containing brackish water. The adjacent Tacumshin Lake, Lough Hyne in West Cork, and one on Whiddy Island are others. Any fish or other marine life surviving therein must have adapted to the conditions.

The lake is a special area of conservation owing to the magnificent spectacle of the dozens of species of birds it hosts and which attract many twitchers. The standout species is the roseate tern, which has made this 1km by 3km lake the number two breeding site for that species in Europe. The small grey and white bird with red beak and legs has an exotic, double-pointed tail as though it were furnished by an imaginative couturier. Ornithologists describe its distinctive call as a ‘tchu-ick’ and ‘raaak’ sound.

Rockabill in Co Dublin has around 1,500 breeding pairs, while Lady’s Island lake has about 150. BirdWatch Ireland has played a stormer here and has increased the breeding pairs from about 200 in the early 1980s to the present figure. Nesting boxes have been installed on Inish to this end and the results have been successful.

BirdWatch Ireland and the North Wales Wildlife Trust are currently involved in a €3.2m conservation project whose remit runs till next year to protect and expand the habitat of the roseate tern.

The groups have identified several threats to the populations, not least general disturbance such as by egg collectors.

“This threat can cause whole colonies to abandon their nests, and can also cause colonies to shrink and/or move in subsequent seasons,” says roseatetern.org.

Other threats to the roseate tern are from foxes, brown rats, peregrine falcons, badgers, mink, otters, and large gulls. So its survival here is a matter of very careful management.

Five other species are listed on Lady’s Island Lake as special conservation interest species: the gadwall, the black-headed gull, the sandwich tern, the common tern, and arctic tern. Many other species can be seen on the lake including rare birds on migratory routes including the red kite, the hobby, the black-winged stilt, and the American golden plover. There is hardly a better site in the country to provoke a child’s interest in our feathered friends.

The lake takes its name from the eponymous Lady’s Island which was once a lake but which has filled in over the years to create a link to the mainland across an old causeway. There are the remains of a Norman castle, a leaning tower, and a graveyard. The ‘island’ has been a place of pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years.

Inish is one of two islands on the lake. The other, Sgarbheen, is closer to the north shore and is roughly the same size and very low-lying. It too has huge quantities of nesting birds. There was a third, or a fourth if you count the island where stood the Norman castle. Near the southern end was a second Inish, a minute place which too became attached to the shoreline thus extending a mini-peninsula at Ring Green.

How to get there:

Lady’s Island Lake is 5km south of Rosslare, Co Wexford. The island is strictly supervised and visitors are not permitted.

Other: birdwatchireland.ie; irishbirds.ie; roseatetern.org; npws.ie;

The Complete Field Guide to Ireland’s Birds, Eric Dempsey and Michael O’Clery, Gill and MacMillan

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